A holiday festival full of Italian traditions and … food!
When forecasted rain prompted Charleston to postpone its annual Christmas Parade last week, I wasn’t about to let that setback rain on my own holiday fun.
So I hopped in the car in search of Christmas cheer and good eats, both of which I found in plentiful supply at Fairmont’s annual Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is now part of the city’s larger Hometown Holiday Celebration.
Held each December, the festival celebrates the Italian-American tradition of an elaborate Christmas Eve feast of seven courses, each one featuring a different type of seafood.
Although I’ve heard about this popular gathering for years, the thought of eating – much less celebrating – seafood at Christmastime always seemed, well, pretty foreign to me.
We were more of a “meat and potatoes” kind of family growing up, but after two days of cooking demonstrations, food trucks, a multi-course tasting dinner and plenty of Italian heritage, I now see what we’ve been missing!
If you’d like to make this a new holiday tradition moving forward, here’s a taste of what you’ll enjoy when next December’s event rolls around.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
The weekend’s premier event was Saturday’s festival, which filled the streets of downtown Fairmont with food, rinks, arts, crafts, shopping, live music and oodles of Italian culture.
I strolled past the intoxicating smells of fried sausages and peppers, meatballs simmering in sauce, fresh-baked bread and all sorts of garlicky goodness before starting my sampling Saturday morning with something I tried to justify as breakfast.
That was a traditional Fritti, essentially an Italian donut, which is a ring of soft and pillowy fried dough that’s tossed in either regular or cinnamon-sugar and served piping hot.
The good folks from St. Patrick Altar & Rosary Society of the Knights of Columbus in Mannington were selling them by the dozen, and I could’ve easily eaten that many.
But there were more flavors to savor, so I walked a few tents down to dig into another piping-hot treat.
This one was a bowl of cioppino, an Italian-American stew that originated in San Francisco in the 1800s, when local fishermen would add any scraps of seafood they had into a pot of flavorful tomato broth. Mine from Mister Crabs was overflowing with shrimp and mussels – with a wedge of bread on top to sop up the “juice” – and it was awesome.
I knew I’d never forgive myself if I left without trying the meatballs, sausages or chicken Parm, either plain or stuffed in a giant bun, and the sausages won out when I passed the colorful tent serving Dominick “Thunder” Stingo’s secret-recipe sausages on a fresh-baked roll topped with simmered Oliverio peppers.
It’s no secret it was delicious.
Hometown Holiday Market
The day before I had spent the afternoon at the adjacent Hometown Holiday Market, where more than 50 regional vendors were selling an impressive collection of arts, crafts, pottery, woodwork, jewelry, clothing, bath products, home décor and a bounty of fresh-made and prepackaged foods.
I did a little holiday shopping before stocking up on all kinds of goodies for my favorite gift recipient: me! (I’ve been very good this year. Swear.)
My haul included fresh-baked rosemary-garlic, spinach-feta and herb-parmesan focaccias, along with sage pesto, olive paste, lupini beans, gingerbread-walnut baklava, pull-apart lemon pound cake bites, an Italian nut roll and wine cookies.
Merry Christmas to me!
But the real highlight for me was Festival Cucina, a seven-course Italian feast on Friday night where each dish was not only prepared, but also demonstrated, by different chefs.
While a lively crowd sipped wine at tables inside a local church’s large activity room, chef after chef regaled the group with cooking techniques and holiday traditions from their own families, while also sharing step-by-step instructions on how to make each course.
Through the course of the evening, we enjoyed Eggplant Bruschetta with capers, olives, garlic and herbs; a Baccala Salad with salt cod, garlic, lemon, olives and peppers; Zuppa Pavese, an Italian bread soup with crab, apple, parmesan cheese and eggs in a savory roasted chicken broth; and Anchovy Zeppole, which were fried pockets of dough stuffed with salty anchovies.
There was also Stuffed Calamari bathed in marinara; Tuna Meatballs with onions, garlic, pine nuts, cheese and herbs in tomato sauce; sugar-dusted Italian Sour Cream Nut Cookies with hints of vanilla, orange and lemon; and Café Diablo, a high-test coffee spiked with Cognac, Cointreau, Curacao, cinnamon, citrus peels and, of all things, garlic.
As good as all the food was, each chef’s stories were even better, pairing together nicely for a priceless night of fellowship I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at email@example.com.